ST. PETERSBURG — He was a 14-year-old from Connecticut playing in a tournament at Disney the first time he came to the Trop in 1998 to see his Yankees face the then-Devil Rays when he noticed something different. Fourteen years later, as a big-leaguer on leave rehabbing from surgery and living nearby, he came back for a 2012 matchup and was struck that the phenomenon was the same.
“I was like, this is pretty interesting,’’ Charlie Morton said, “because there’s a lot of Yankees fans here.’’
The Yankees have a lot of fans in a lot of places.
But especially in the Tampa Bay area.
For many reasons, some valid, they are essentially the other home team in the market. And clearly to some, the first.
That will be evident again this weekend when they meet at the Trop as the top two teams in the AL East in what could be an intriguing, seasonlong race. And it will be tough based on the cheering to tell which is the home team.
“The Yankees might have a homefield advantage a lot of places on the road, to be quite honest. They are a historic franchise, and a lot of people love them and gravitate toward them,’’ Rays centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said.
“But talking about here, they have a spring training facility right down the road. There’s a lot of Yankees fans in the Tampa area for many reasons.’’
Biggest is certainly the expanded presence of having that spring base, plus a minor-league team, and year-round rehab and player-development programs, in high-visibility facilities along Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. “That doesn’t do us any favors,’’ Morton said.
Then factor in the number of transplants from the Northeast, who keep their deep-rooted allegiances. The winning tradition that’s passed on, and conveniently latched on to, through generations. The local prominence, and benevolence, of the Steinbrenner family. The high-level of national media exposure, including having a Tampa radio station (WHBO-AM 1040) among their radio affiliates.
There’s anecdotal stories of Tampa-area fans who root for the Rays most of the time, then pull out their Yankees gear for the three annual visits — and somehow surviving the suffering of driving over the bridges and through traffic to find their way to the Trop.
“We obviously have a lot of fans in Tampa because we have spring training there, but we have a lot of fans wherever we go, I feel like, so … it’s a little different feel for me because we spend so much time there,’’ Yankees veteran outfielder Brett Gardner said this week. “We’re so familiar with it. I’ve always enjoyed my time there.’’
The alternative universe experience of having half or more fans cheering when the visiting team does well is nothing new at the Trop, though as pitcher Ryne Stanek noted, “it’s kind of strange sometimes.’’
It has been that way for most of the Rays’ first 21 seasons when they play higher-profile teams, and at least a few others.
“It’s different, but at the same time I’ve been here since 2014 and I know what to expect with what we go up against,’’ Kiermaier said. “It’s okay. We just have a different dynamic than most of the teams out there.’’
Morton, who has lived in the Bradenton area for 10 years and signed with the Rays this season, experienced the split-allegiance crowds for the first time as a player last month when the Red Sox visited.
“I don’t think that was half and half. I think it was a little bit more than that,’’ he said. “It was loud.’’
Attendance, as you may have heard or read, has been a long-standing issue for the Rays. Even with the best record in the majors much of this season, their past three games drew a total of 24,846, which is less than any single crowd the Yankees have played in front of so far.
So Rays players have adapted and come to appreciate the bigger crowds, even if they are slanted to the visitors.
“I don’t really care if you’re a Rays fan or a Yankees fan, as long as there are people in the seats,’’ said Kiermaier. “That makes it fun for us. We play the game for many reasons, but it’s always nice to go out there and put on a show for the people in the stands. I don’t really care what team they’re repping or whatnot.
“Yeah, it would be nice to have more Rays fans than the opposition but given how things have been for years now, it’s just one of those things where it’s kind of the norm. It doesn’t bother me.
“Players who come over here (to the Rays) for the first time, I think they’re a little shell-shocked because they might not have been a part of anything like that. Especially if you’re down in the ninth inning and the Yankees and Red Sox fans, they have their chants and it’s hard to compete with from our fans’ standpoint because we’re outnumbered most of the time.’’
If the Rays keep winning this year, and especially if they get back to being an annual contender as when they made the playoffs four times from 2008-13, Kiermaier said, “I think more people will hop on the bandwagon.’’
Noting how deep and familial sports allegiances run for Northeasterners, Morton said it might just be a matter of time, as kids who grew up in the bay area since the Rays started play in 1998 are just now becoming adults and ticket-buyers:
“Hopefully we’re establishing our fan base, not just based on, ‘Oh, there’s a team in Tampa Bay,’ but there’s kids who grew up paying attention as Rays fans.’’
So while the Rays backers in the stands this weekend might not be the loudest, Kiermaier said the goal is to at least give them the last word.
“We do appreciate the fans who come out and support the Rays,’’ he said. “And as long as we can have our fans have the last laugh as they’re walking out the gate, talking trash and saying, “We whupped your butt tonight,’ that’s all that matters.’’
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.